'Ich bin immer noch ein Berliner'

By Robert Frank on November 13, 2014

For the generation that has grown to adulthood in the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, it must be hard to fathom how profoundly the world changed on Nov. 9, 1989.

We stared in wonderment at the television images of young Berliners from both East and West standing and singing arm-in-arm atop the divide that had defined the world we had grown up in.

“Wir sind das Volk,” read their banners. We are the people.

It was completely unexpected.

Until that day, many Western political pundits told us that the authoritarian Soviet Union would be around for another century. They asserted that we ought to find a way to accommodate the now defunct superpower. Unilateral disarmament by the West was mooted as a panacea.

Soviet communism had by then mellowed somewhat, since Stalin’s death ended his reign of terror in 1953. But the degree of social control needed to sustain his successors’ central ideology still stifled its people.

Nowhere was that more evident than in West Berlin – an enclave surrounded by Soviet proxy East Germany. Stalin tried to starve it out, only to be stymied by a massive cargo airlift by the Royal Canadian Air Force and its American, British, Australian, New Zealand and South African counterparts.

From 1949-1960, 210,962 dissatisfied East Germans voted with their feet. They simply walked to freedom in West Berlin.

Soviet officials became alarmed in 1961, though, when that figure spiked to 155,402 during the first seven-and-a-half months of that year.

On Aug. 13, 1961, they began building a wall that turned East Germany into a prison. 

Another 51,624 East Germans crossed during the remainder of that year but the next year, the fortification was complete. It was formidable: 106 km of concrete slabs; 66.5 km of fencing protected by 20 bunkers, 259 dog runs, 105.5 km of anti-vehicle ditches, 127.5 km of touch-activated fences and 124.3 km of patrol roads. 

Faced with this daunting obstacle, during the 15 years from 1962-1977, only 10,840 more East Germans made it out. From 1980-1986, the figure fell to just 316.

Loathed on both sides of the former boundary, the wall was mostly demolished, save for six stretches preserved for posterity at Wall Park, The Bernauer Street memorial, the Chausée Strasse checkpoint, Invaliden Cemetery, Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery.

They serve not just as a reminder against absolutism, but also against appeasement.

When President John Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, he spoke directly to those who contended “we can work with the communists.”

Many opposed him, for fear of the conflagration that could have ensued. A generation grew up in the spectre of a nuclear confrontation that could have destroyed most life on earth.

Soviet Communism’s collapse began that remarkable day, 25 years ago. Some argue that it imploded under the weight of its own internal inconsistencies. It would not have, though, had we failed oppose it.

Today, we witness new aggression stirring abroad. Eastern European nations fret over their ability sustain their national boundaries against aggression. A new threat is sweeping across the Middle East, while pestilence plagues Africa.

It’s popular to suggest that the West remain uninvolved. But the principle remains unaltered: Ich bin immer noch ein Berliner. A quarter-century later, I’m still a Berliner.

It will be up to the generation that has flourished in unfettered freedom to decide whether they too will stand in solidarity with those whose freedom is now imperiled.


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